I’ve written plenty about my favourite record store in the world, Academy Records in Brooklyn. Going there for me is just a given drain on my wallet, because I will undoubtedly see some rare foreign album reissue with a note from the staff on it reading something like “awesome midwestern folk obscurity” or “incredible japanese psych underground classic!” Before I know it I’m out $35.
The other day I was in the neighbourhood and walked in just intending to browse casually, determined not to buy anything. I ended up looking through the Swedish section and saw this weird album cover. As I do whenever I find something that looks curious, I took a picture so I could look it up online at home.
As I soon learned, the album is a vinyl reissue of Joakim Skogsberg‘s rare, mysterious 1971 album Jola Rota. Skogsberg was part of the hippie scene in Stockholm back in the 60s, but as time went on he became increasingly interested in nature and escaping the city. Apparently, Skogsberg would go into the forest and hum into a tape recorder strange melodies inspired by a folkways recording of Japanese shamanist chanting. He later overdubbed cool droning and percussion sounds, building full songs around the forest humming tapes at recording spaces back in the city. The resulting album received a limited 1000 copy print with around 400 selling – the rest were melted down and used to make other records. Shortly after the release, Skogsberg left Stockholm to live in a small, rustic town filled mostly with elderly citizens, the youth having all moved to the cities. It would be something like 20 years before he recorded another album.
This kind of backstory alone was enough to convince me I had to own Jola Rota. It’s the kind of strange and magnificent that record geeks live and die for. Like Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence‘s OAR, it’s got a mystical, ‘heart of darkness’ honesty that’s impossible to fake. Two days later I went back to Academy and shelled out the cash…they got me again…
In the early aughts, Montreal was all about the apocalypse sound.
Between 2001-2006, the albums best embodying the fear, angst, anger and societal disconnect sweeping North America following 9/11 came from French Canada’s largest city: Montreal, Quebec. Even New York’s own revived music scene found itself bested by the likes of Montreal bands Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mt. Zion, Arcade Fire, The Dears and The Stills – all of whom released stark, beautiful, despairing albums reflecting the fever of the times. But the album that best captured the era’s feeling of subdued hysteria was Wolf Parade’s 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary.
Although based in Montreal, all Wolf Parade’s members were originally from British Columbia, and their scruffy looks and raucous energy had more in common with BC bands like Ladyhawk and Japandroids than anything from la belle province. Also unlike their popular peers in Arcade Fire or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Wolf Parade were not a collective, nor did their music feature the kind of orchestral sounds then in vogue. Dan Boeckner’s dirty guitars and Spencer Krug’s spacey analog synths defined their aesthetic. Combined with Arlen Thompson’s mammoth drums and Hadji Bakara’s anxious electronics, Wolf Parade’s sound on Apologies conjured up sonic images of a ‘used future’ resembling the one in Terminator movies: desolate, dystopian, and technologically terrifying.
“I’m not in love with the modern world.”
The album’s second track, “Modern World”, is Boeckner’s ironic reply to the Modern Lovers’ song “Modern World”. It is also serves as the album’s mission statement. Far from being in love with the modern world and the USA and driving with the radio on, Wolf Parade’s members were not impressed. On the contrary, Apologies is a litany of Wolf Parade’s issues with the times. In “Shine A Light”, Boeckner bewails the constant treadmill of low-level employment, with its “endless hours in the office tour/on a bus on a bus back home to you/that’s fine I’m barely alive.” In “We Built Another World”, he voices his disgust with the superficiality of youth culture where “everyone’s disguised just a little bit.” Krug, in “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts”, borrows an image from Hindu mythology to lament Western affluenza. In “Dinner Bells”, he imagines an impending environmental apocalypse where “there’ll be no more winter/And there’ll be no more spring.” In “I’ll Believe In Anything”, he voices a generation’s desperation for existential meaning.
Anxiety about the end of nature in an increasingly technology-dominated world is another one of the album’s consistent complaints. In a Pitchfork interview from 2005, Boeckner acknowledged the theme, saying,
“There’s this sort of alienating feeling, for me sometimes at least, where I feel like there’s all this technology that is now completely embedded in the environment that we live in– I don’t understand it or I’ve just got to the point that I completely ignore it and that kinda freaks me out. And also, I get this feeling of decay from growing up in a small town and moving to successively larger cities. Sometimes I feel like these cities are built on snarled machines that seem tenuous and not as solid as a huge den of trees outside your house.”
Although it is never addressed explicitly, Boeckner and Krug make subtle references to it in lyrics like “It’s gotta last to build up your eyes/And a lifetime of red skies,” (“Modern World”) and “Said you hate the sound/Of the buses on the ground/Said you hate the way they scrape their breaks all over town/Said pretend it’s whales keeping their voices down/These were the grounds for divorce I know” (“Grounds For Divorce”). Adam Bizanski’s haunting stop-motion music video for “Modern World” also references it, depicting the band being replaced by spindly, efficient machines.
Although Boeckner and Krug’s writing styles have always been distinguishable, their shared sense of crushing despair on Apologies – “Fancy Claps” is basically the musical equivalent of sitting in a dark corner in the fetal position – provided the album with thematic consistency. In subsequent work, however, Boeckner and Krug’s songwriting paths diverged enormously.
With Krug’s Sunset Rubdown and Moonface projects, as well as Swan Lake – his indie supergroup with Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Blackout Beach) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers) – Krug would dive headfirst into the fantastical elements of his work hinted at on Apologies. Starting with Sunset Rubdown’s 2006 album Shut Up I Am Dreaming, Krug as the dreamer with fantastical visions of sacred animals, mythical beasts and places where lovers have wings, would henceforth be the definitive one. The political Krug, who so poignantly depicted the neo-conservative, religion-tinged insanity of the Bush era in “Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” and “I’ll Believe In Anything”, would for the most part disappear.
Boeckner, on the other hand, became perhaps the closest thing to a protest singer in aughts indie-rock (after Efrim Menuck). Starting in 2007, Boeckner’s band Handsome Furs (with then-wife Alexei Perry) toured many of the places most bands avoid in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The duo’s time in the former USSR inspired the soviet vibe of 2009’s Face Control, the back cover of which features a picture of Putin. Their song “Serve the People” was inspired by the Burmese government’s efforts to block rock bands from playing for the general public. The duo also starred in their own CNN.com vlog series called Indie Asia and blogged about their travels on their website.
Boeckner and Handsome Furs became increasingly political until their breakup in 2012, but the end of the Bush era and the beginning of Obama’s “hope and change” administration saw North American indie rock generally lose interest in writing about political issues. Gone were the days of Bright Eyes and TV on the Radio releasing free anti-Bush digital downloads. Even in Canada, where the current right-wing, Bush-wannabe Prime Minister Stephen Harper ascended to power in 2006, indie rock – at least outside of Quebec – became just as apolitical. Musicians in the United States and Canada voiced support for the Occupy movement, Pussy Riot, and other progressive matters, but few prominent North American indie rock bands and artists explicitly dealt with contemporary issues in their musical work.
Post-ApologiesWolf Parade were, for the most part, no exception to this trend. The songwriting of 2008’s At Mount Zoomer and 2010’s Expo 86 gave the impression that whereas Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs were once considered Wolf Parade side projects, Wolf Parade had become the supergroup side-project of Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs members. Both were still great albums, but the thematic unity of Apologies’ politics was nearly gone, with songs like “Call It A Ritual” (about wars in the Middle East) and “Yulia” (Boeckner returning to his soviet fascination) providing the rare exceptions.
In 2011, Wolf Parade announced it was going on indefinite hiatus.
Listening to Apologies in September 2015 is a strange experience, like opening a time capsule from the first couple years of the Bush administration and post-9/11 world. All the worst memories from the period come rushing back. The World Trade Center attacks. Anthrax in the mail. The Patriot Act. The declaration of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite the problems of 2015, North America is in many ways a more hopeful place (at least for progressive and liberal types) than it was during the Bush years. Americans elected the first African-American president. Gay marriage is legal in the United States and Canada. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to be winding down. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan indicates that at least one political party in the US is finally getting serious about confronting climate change. And although Canadian Prime Minister Harper has tarnished Canada’s environmental reputation and passed his own Patriot Act in the form of Bill C-51, at the time of writing, Canada’s progressive New Democratic Party are leading the federal election polls [update: a recent Star poll found the Conservatives to be in the lead – let’s all hope it’s wrong and if you’re a Canadian reading this, please go out and vote if you haven’t already.]
So could an album as crushing and apocalyptic as Apologies be made in 2015? Maybe not. There’s a wounded passivity to Apologies; a feeling of being beaten down too many times. The album is peppered with lyrics about laying in bed, sleeping and wanting to run away. One can find similar sentiments on other albums from the period, like Arcade Fire’s Funeral (see: “In The Backseat”) and Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief (see: “Sit Down Stand Up”). But there’s a feeling of active hope or at least resilient anger in more recent political music. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band’s most recent album is called Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything. When Arcade Fire sing “Can we just work it out?” on Reflektor’s “Afterlife”, they sound like they believe we actually can work it out. Is the apocalypse sound dead? Or is it just waiting until after election season to make a return?
Named after the beloved children’s books by Can-Lit legend Mordecai Richler, Hooded Fang is one of Toronto’s most underrated bands. Led by the inexhaustible Daniel Lee aka Lee Paradise (Phedre, Daps Records), Hooded Fang have been around for years. Their discography includes three great full-length albums and an EP. My favourite release from their discography is their 2010 album Album (or self-titled…it’s not entirely clear…).
Album is a phenomenal collection of indie pop songs. The compositions are tight, the lyrics mature and insightful (if not overtly sophisticated) and the arrangements colorful and playful. There are wonderful horn and string flourishes throughout and the vocal trade-off from song to song between Lee’s baritone and Lorna Wright‘s coo is a classic indie-rock move that no one ever gets tired of. But there’s also a tinge of melancholy that runs through everything, making Album feel like the Sunday dawn closing out a great summer weekend.
Hooded Fang‘s later albums are no slouches either. It may very well be that the only reason I like Album the most is because it’s the one I’ve spent the most time with. Honestly, I didn’t even hear about the second and third album when they came out, but only some time after the release of each. Lee and his Daps crew sometimes seem to work like that. They just make great music. You’ll hear about it sooner or later.
Stephen Stills is kind of an interesting case. After the dissolution of Buffalo Springfield, of the band’s three principle songwriters – Richie Furay, Neil Young and Stills – Stills was considered by many to be the most promising. Of course, it was Stills who wrote Buffalo Springfield‘s biggest hit, “For What It’s Worth”, as well as “Bluebird”, the centrepiece of the band’s best album, Buffalo Springfield Again.
Stills would later achieve stardom and success as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young), but he never attained the legendary solo artist status that his sometimes friend and bandmate Young did. For the most part, this is understandable: Young was always the more interesting, experimental and ahead-of-his-time songwriter. That being said, in the current historical narrative, Stills is often given short-shrift. His short-lived 70s band Manassas is a perfect example of this.
Though Manassas and their first, self-titled album were successful back in the day, the album is one few talk about these days and without good reason. Mannasas is a sprawling, ambitious two-disc mix of Southern rock, country, blues and bluegrass that holds together beautifully, supported as it is by a stellar cast of musicians (including ex-Byrd/Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, Al Perkins, and The Rolling Stones‘ Bill Wyman) and a lot of great songwriting. The album is very much a product of its time, but not so much that it doesn’t still hold up. Just listen to should-be-classic tracks like “Both Of Us (Bound To Lose)” and “Right Now”.
Actually, if one had to pick Manassas’ closest musical relative, it would probably be The Rolling Stones‘ own classic double-album mix of rock, blues, folk and country: the explosively-inspired, heroin-fueled Exile On Mainstreet. Manassas may not have Exile‘s incredible, era-defining energy, but it is the more authentically American of the two. And that’s gotta count for something, right? Even if it doesn’t, Manassas is still a great album. Perhaps the greatest you’ll find in the used-vinyl dollar bin. If you see it there, consider grabbing it. If people catch on to what a forgotten classic it is, it might not be there much longer.
One of the weird things about New York is that because it’s so insanely urban (especially Manhattan), a lot of people there develop a crazy craving for the outdoors. I definitely felt it and, as a result, I spent a lot of time in my apartment dreaming of moving to British Columbia. Even as I type this, the wallpaper on my phone and my laptop are pictures my friend Breanna took while travelling across B.C. So now at least when I go to check my email I can see that magical place…
My craving for B.C. led me back to the province’s awesome music scene (mostly bands from Vancouver and sometimes Victoria). Especially the ragged stuff. Bands like Black Mountain. Japandroids. Ladyhawk. And then from there I started trying to find out about other cool bands from Vancouver that I might’ve missed. Eventually my searches turned up The Mohawk Lodge.
I think the first thing I heard was their most recent album, 2012’s Damaged Goods. I wasn’t really into it, but I decided to check out some tracks from one other album, 2007’s Wildfires, just in case their older stuff was better. Well, it was and is. But even better than Wildfires is their 2010 album Crimes. To be fair, frontman Ryder Havdale ditched Vancouver for Toronto in 2008 and recorded Crimes there, but it still feels more like a Vancouver album than a Toronto one.
What makes Crimes and Wildfires so compelling is the same ragged heart-on-sleeve, B.C. dive bar beauty that you can hear in the music of bands like Ladyhawk and Japandroids. They sing about love and stuff, but it’s stoner love, hitch-hiker love, bearded, fleeting, irresponsible, immature, dirty and glorious. Half of what they miss is the girl, but the other half is the time, the place, the moment. Like in “Younger Us” when Japandroids sing “Give me the night you were already in bed/Said “fuck it”, got up to drink with me instead.” It’s that very B.C. feeling.
As great as both albums are, Crimes is a bit more consistent. The production on songs like “Let Go” – with its playful, layered vocals and the hand claps that come in halfway through – is also a cut above the band’s previous work. Sometimes it’s a bit too clean actually, and the best songs on Wildfires actually strike a better balance between gritty and produced, but most of the songs on Crimes are still great.
I wanted to go to Vancouver again this summer. I was planning to take a road trip from Portland, OR to Dawson City in the Yukon Territories, but I’m not even sure if I’ll have a week to go back to Toronto and visit my family this summer, let alone take what would need to be at least a month-long road trip. Stupid law school-intern-work life. Yeah, I know, it’s the responsible path, but sometimes I just want to say screw it and live in that B.C. feeling forever. Until that day comes though, I guess I’ll just dream of the West Coast’s mountains and forests while listening to The Mohawk Lodge.